Franklin Roosevelt’s dozen years as president saw him battle the Great Depression, Imperial Japan, and Nazi Germany. In Frank Costigliola’s view, Roosevelt was necessary for one more imposing task: preventing the Cold War. The tragedy was that FDR did not live long enough to complete it.
Costigliola, a historian at the University of Connecticut, maintains in his new book that Roosevelt’s death in April 1945 eliminated the one man who could have kept alive the wartime alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union. “The Cold War was not inevitable,’’ Costigliola writes. “Nor did that conflict stem solely from political disputes and the ideological clash between capitalism and communism.’’ Rather, it stemmed from mistrust between Soviet and American leaders, cultural differences between their two countries, and mistakes on both sides. Costigliola argues that FDR alone had the credibility, political skills, and strategic acumen required to overcome those obstacles.
Even with 60 years of writing on the Cold War’s origins behind us, “Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances’’ can boast of a novel thesis. Those few scholars willing to hinge the beginning of the decades-long conflict on a single leader have mostly fingered Joseph Stalin as the man responsible. Most contemporary historians believe that when World War II removed the common Axis threat, conflict between the two temporary allies proved unavoidable.
Of course, the depth and direction of that conflict was something less certain. Costigliola deftly shows that Stalin and Roosevelt really did have a unique relationship. Roosevelt had officially recognized the Soviet Union in 1933 and had led the American people from despising the Communist empire as an enemy to appreciating it as an ally. In addition, FDR had presided over the dispensation of vital aid to the Soviets and had reassured them that he intended to keep the wartime alliance intact. As a result, Stalin had respect and affection for Roosevelt he reserved for no other international leader, including Winston Churchill.
A famous anecdote Costigliola repeats illustrates the point. Churchill is the kind who, if you don’t watch him, would “slip a kopeck out of your pocket,’’ Stalin once told a confidant. And Roosevelt? He “is not like that. He dips in his hand only for bigger coins.’’ For Stalin, there could be few larger compliments. He admired FDR’s shrewdness and flexibility.
More than this, FDR surrounded himself for most of the war with equally skilled advisers and supporters. Truman, when he became president, did not have the same self-confidence in his judgment or wisdom to overrule his advisers when necessary, Costigliola believes. Partly as a result, he came prematurely to the conclusion that the United States would not be able to work with the Soviets. Similarly, Stalin had no experience or history with the new American president and relied on his typical aggressiveness.
“Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances’’ has a terrific familiarity with its subject. Costigliola examines all the latest research on the immediate postwar period and knows it well. His book functions as a solid counterpoint to those who believe great men do not make history. It is no small feat to find an original perspective on a hugely documented period such as the early Cold War era.
In the end, however, Costigliola’s thesis is just not convincing. For one thing, he undermines himself by showing how much Roosevelt lost when many of those closest to him, like Harry Hopkins, died or left his inner circle. And it seems unlikely that those influential advisers would have returned even if he had lived.
More importantly, it is just not plausible that the sphere of influence in Eastern Europe that Soviet leaders felt was necessary for security purposes would have been acceptable to any American leader. Republicans were able to make a successful campaign issue out of the agreement at Yalta, where FDR didn’t actually accede to any Soviet plans he could resist. Imagine what the GOP would have done with Roosevelt (or anybody else) willingly granting all of Eastern Europe to Stalin.
True, Truman was determined to assert himself as a strong leader. But he was also, for a long time, committed to keeping defense spending low and avoiding war. The political scientist Robert Jervis has argued, persuasively in my view, that the Korean War was as responsible as anything for solidifying Cold War tensions. And that conflict, we know, resulted primarily from misperceptions on Stalin’s part about American resolve in Korea. The Cold War may not have been inevitable. But two superpowers emerged from the wreckage of World War II with a history of tensions and rival global ideologies. They were not going to be allies forever, with or without FDR in the Oval Office a few years longer.
Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon.